What a Mouthful!
Madeleine Greey

When Heather LaBrie Shears encountered feeding problems with her newborn baby a year ago, she was reduced to tears more than once. "It's all my fault," thought the Fredericton mom, overcome with worry and guilt.

The same desperation echoed loudly in cyberspace when a woman named Lisa left a message at the Today's Parent Web site. "Help!" she implored, "my daughter is on a hunger strike! My husband and I are going out of our minds with worry!"

Meanwhile, in Hanwell, New Brunswick, the Fraser family was slogging through their own awful food fight. Just about every time Trina and her husband, Lawrence, sat down to dinner with three-year-old Austin, they wind up frustrated and angry. "He never eats well," says Trina, "and we end up badgering him all the time."

There's no doubt about it: When it comes to food, emotions run high. And nowhere is the balance between peace and strife more precarious than around our own kitchen tables.

Why do so many parents and their children get stuck battling it out over food? Are we using bread and butter for sustenance, or are we using it as a tool - a reward, a threat, a comfort? Moreover, how come parents feel rejected when a child doesn't eat? Are we mistaking food for love?

According to Ellyn Satter, a Madison, Wisconsin dietitian and family therapist, food can equal love, especially at birth, when "nourishment is absolutely synonymous with nurturance."

Yes, food fuels babies' empty tanks, but it is also one of the ways that parents show love for their child. When a parent feeds a baby sensitively, following the child's lead and reading his unspoken cues, that parent is, according to Satter, providing him with profound messages of acceptance and understanding. (When mother and baby share a breastfeeding relationship, this bond becomes both an emotional and a physical one.) But as children grow, they get love in many other ways. Yet food still plays a role so vital that Satter has coined the term "feeding relationship" and has come out with three books and a video to help parents rocky terrain.

Toronto child psychotherapist Janet Morrison points out that parents tend to judge themselves according to how their children eat. If their child is a "good" eater, then they feel like good parents but many parents end up feeling rejected when their child refuses food. "Parents put a lot of effort, planning, time and money into food preparation," explains Morrison. When a child responds with "Yuck! I don't want it!" many feel undermined and unappreciated.

Why do we get into these conflicts? Largely because our attitudes about food are often driven by "shoulds," "do's" and "don'ts." Adults tend to believe that people should eat regular amounts of food at regular intervals. It's an intellectual approach.

But kids are different. Young children, especially babies, follow their bodies' signals and operate instinctually. It doesn't matter what time it is or how hungry (or not hungry) they "should" be. They simply feel it. So when Mom looks at her watch and says "Mealtime," Junior might just say, "I'm not hungry."

Kids' erratic eating habits don't help matters, says feeding guru Satter. "What children love to eat one day, they'll reject the next day. They'll eat a lot one day, then nothing the next. They'll go on food jags and eat the same food every day. Then suddenly, they'll go off that food and won't touch it for another year and a half!"

While these inconsistencies can drive parents crazy, the truth is that unpredictable eating patterns are absolutely normal for children. Study after study has confirmed that almost all children, when allowed to decide for themselves how much to eat, will naturally regulate their food intake. They won't starve, nor will they overeat. (Occasionally, parents do have reason to worry. It's wise to consult with your child's doctor about chronic under- or overeating, since there could be an underlying health problem.)

So, in order for children to eat "normally," they need their parents to trust and respect their internal cues. Satter says parents should be responsible for providing a variety of nutritious foods at scheduled mealtimes, as well as snacks throughout the day. Children, on the other hand, ought to be left in charge of what they actually consume.

"Many parents dictate what and how much their child should eat," points out Satter. Children who are compliant will probably go along, but those who are more assertive might put up a fight.

"Either way," she warns, "a child will lose the ability to know how hungry or how full he is because he is eating according to his parent's agenda, rather than by what goes on inside of him." The big message is trust. Yet faith is hard to muster, especially when we think our kids are too fat or too thin.

Trina Fraser, for example, describes her son Austin as "skinny." She says that he has never eaten well and that you can "see his ribs and hip bones when he has no clothes on." Despite her doctor's assurances that her son is doing just fine, Fraser worries. She agrees that Austin appears energetic and appropriately developed, but her son's eating just doesn't seem "normal."

A parent's attitude toward her child's eating affects the overall framework of the feeding relationship, says Karen Webber, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Kelowna, B.C. "But sometimes parents find it hard to trust kids because they have difficulty trusting themselves around food."

Admittedly, many of us have lost touch with our bodies' cues. When we eat, is it because we are hungry or bored, sad or stressed out? Society's obsession with thinness doesn't help, nor does our madcap variety of dieting potions, low-fat foods and weight-loss regimes. As a result, a great number of parents, especially mothers, have a love-hate attitude toward food. This negativity is bound to trickle down.

In addition, children learn by watching, so when parents skip meals or don't take the time to sit down to eat, kids get a definite message. For preteens, especially girls, that kind of example can encourage a negative body image.

So we need to be aware of our own attitudes toward food. Psychologists say one way to do this is to think back to our childhood experiences.

Brenda Kwong Hing of Toronto remembers being forbidden to eat certain foods. "I was deprived of all junk food as a child," she says. "My parents were very strict about it. And I remember sneak-eating as a teen."

Consequently, Kwong Hing tries not to deprive her two daughters, Kortney, eight, and Kailyn, seven, of any particular foods. That doesn't mean that they can have any foods they want at any time, but it does mean that both "good" and "bad" foods have a place in their diets.

"Once a week, usually Thursdays, we go to the store and I let them buy whatever crap' they want with their allowance," she says. "It takes them forever to decide - it's their choice. It gives them some control, and I think they really like that."

Research confirms what many parents have learned through experience. In her book How to Get Your Child to Eat... But Not Too Much, Satter cites numerous studies showing that when parents deprive children of food, children react by wanting more. They are likely to become preoccupied with food, and to become prone to overeating. Conversely, when parents try to force children to eat, they become revolted by food and undereating becomes a concern.

Understanding your child's "food temperament" is another key to a successful feeding relationship. According to Toronto registered dietitian and Today's Parent writer Rosie Schwartz, kids approach food in many different ways.

"Some kids are more aware of their discomfort levels when they are full than others," says Schwartz. "Some feel hunger more intensely. Some kids have big appetites and some aren't very interested in food. There are adventurous eaters and there are picky eaters. We have to respect our kids' likes and dislikes."

Without even thinking, parents can give kids the wrong messages about food. When a child scrapes her knee, for example, we might try to make it better with an ice cream cone. But eating for comfort, says Schwartz, leads kids to eat not because they're hungry, but because they feel bad. Likewise, she cautions parents against rewarding good behaviour with a treat.

If you tend to worry about what your kids eat, and you think this might show in your comments, body language or facial expressions, try engaging your children (age permitting) in lively dinner-table discussions about topics that interest all of you. And, says Satter, avoid particularly loaded food comments like:
o "This is going to make you fat."
o "Are you sure you're not full?"
o "Finish everything on your plate."
o "No dessert until your carrots are gone. "
o "Eat just one more bite... for Mommy."

No matter how you slice it, children do best when we butt out and let them chew in peace. But that doesn't mean we should avoid opportunities to break bread with our kids. Your daughter may be able to make a sandwich and eat it alone, but studies show that she will eat best and enjoy it more when you are sitting at the table with her.

Preparing and eating a delicious meal can be a great shared pleasure. Brenda Kwong Hing's two daughters, Kortney and Kailyn, "like to get their noses right in there, the moment I start to cook. There I am, with one square foot of counter space to work with, squeezed between one child on my right and the other on my left! You could say we've done a lot of chopping, slicing, peeling, mixing, stirring and measuring together - but we love it."

Thanksgiving means turkey at the Kwong Hing household, and on birthdays, it is Chinese long-life noodles. Kwong Hing can't imagine a celebration without something good to eat. No matter if it is a special event or just a simple weekday meal, dining together "is very special, it gives us a sense of family." And when her eldest responds to a meal with "Oh Mommy, this is faaaabulous," it's just the icing on the cake.